June 25, 2007

Remembering golf in another wartime

This being a time of war brings back memories of another conflict in another time, of a teenage year when I did my part to win World War II by collecting tinfoil and coat hangers around the neighborhood and not complaining about Hershey bars being sent off to make the world safe for democracy.

I refer to the very middle of WW Deuce, to 1943, which was merely the worst year for golf and sports in this country, if not in the history of the free world.

It was surely the worst year for golf, because (1) the PGA Tour suddenly had become the same thing as disappeared, and (2) what passed for maintenance at most courses, private or public, was some fellow whose heart murmur, punctured eardrum or asthma kept him out of uniform, and the club handed him a garden hose.

Instead of going off on Ike's great crusade, and taking with him the hopes and prayers of freedom-loving people everywhere, the poor guy was forced to stay home and strive to keep golf courses playable for teenagers like myself, a hacker who owned a tee ball that could pretty much imitate a boomerang in flight.

What we said around engaging old rock-hard Goat Hills at the time was, "I'd like to see the Japs try to bomb these fairways—they wouldn't make a dent."

As for our PGA Tour, it had somehow managed to stage 20 tournaments in 1942, and 22 tournaments in 1944, but in between, in 1943, the tour struggled nimbly in an effort to hold a grand total of four events.

First, you should know about the important things that were going on in '43, other than a frail young singer in a bow tie, name of Sinatra, creating bobby-soxers, which were young ladies who swooned and fainted in the aisles of theaters. Which was OK with most grownups, I recall, because back then, unlike today, popular songs had melodies, and the lyrics didn't say it was a good idea to murder mom and dad or the police.

Grownups talked about the war going better. Germans were turning into icicles in Russia, Italy was surrendering, Mussolini was looking for a new job and Rommel was now wearing tennis shoes and running backward out of North Africa.

That the war news was good was something I attributed to the fact that my biggest sports heroes—namely Ben Hogan, Joe DiMaggio, Tom Harmon and Joe Louis—had voluntarily entered the military.

Basically, the sports world in '43 had to get by on major league baseball and college football only. The Yankees won the World Series as usual, even without The Jolter, and college football offered a curious blend of freshmen, transfers and service teams. Pro football was around, but it was mainly a game played by old guys, fat guys, and 4-Fs, and the results ran on Page 6.

Meanwhile, the first golf tournament was played in July—the All-American Open at Tam O'Shanter. Jug McSpaden won it in a playoff over Buck White. The next tournament was also in Chicago—the Victory Open at Beverly Country Club in August. Sam Byrd won by five over Craig Wood.

September brought about a thing called the Golden Valley Invitational Four Ball at the Golden Valley Country Club in Minneapolis. Wood and Demaret teamed up to win it.

The last event came just before Christmas, the Miami Open at Miami Springs Country Club. It drew a fairly good field—such pros as Wood, Byrd, Johnny Bulla, Gene Sarazen, Toney Penna. But the winner by three over Byrd turned out to be a fellow named Steve Warga Jr., of whom, it must be confessed, I haven't heard since.

Actually, my favorite result of all the war years came in the summer of '44. That's when the Chicago Victory Open was played again, this time at the Edgewater Golf Club. Jug McSpaden won the tournament, but the runner-up was a guy in the Army Air Corps who hadn't been in competition in 23 months, and played only a couple events for the rest of that season.

Lt. Ben Hogan was his name.